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How spam-fighting technology almost cost me a client

How an overzealous approach to spam-fighting caused problems, and four tips to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to you.

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It all started out with a simple phone call. It was Linda, team leader for a Notes group at a relatively new client. We had completed the first phase of the company's project and were waiting for additional information on phase two.

"How come you never got back to me?" said Linda. "I sent you responses from the team almost a month ago."

"Never got 'em," I said. "Are you sure you are using the right e-mail address?"

The angry growl that came out of the phone's receiver indicated there was no error on her side. I didn't think a human could make a sound quite like that. It was kind of a cross between the venomous hiss of a cobra and an angry cougar, yet in clear concise English!

Linda indeed was using the correct e-mail address. I verified this by sending her an e-mail. But her reply to it never made it back to me! What was the deal here? I was still getting copious amounts of mail every day, so it wasn't me. Maybe it was DNS, or perhaps something to do with El Nino. After all, the weather is bound to cause strange stuff to happen.

As it turns out, it was because of Notes. Or rather, it was because of something I had done with Notes. Specifically, something I had done with that wonderful feature, Journaling.

I am always experimenting with our mail server set up, adding and deleting elements to reduce unsolicited commercial e-mail, or spam. My latest foray was a filter to block those accursed medical product advertisements. The filter was to check the message body for certain words with the instructions to journal and then quietly delete any message that had them. I had the filter set for a vast pharmacy of terms: Viagra, Sildenafil, Ciltrate, Cialis, Valium, Xanex, Levitra, Meridia, Zyban, Zenegra.

There were plenty more, but one of the terms above was the one causing all mail from Linda to be journaled and then deleted. Can you tell which one it was?

[Jeopardy theme plays quietly in background]

Unless you answered "What is Cialis?" you are dead wrong.

At the end of each message from Linda there came a proud signature indicating her position at her company. It simply said: "Systems Specialist." It took me an uncomfortably long time to realize that "Cialis" is contained in the word "specialist."

You can learn four valuable lessons from my overzealous approach to using mail filtering:

  1. Check every word you use in your body filters against the content of a couple of real mail files to make sure you are catching what you expect.

  2. Make periodic examinations of your mail journals. Be certain that you are stopping the bad stuff and letting the good stuff go through. You might find you're stopping legitimate sale offers from vendors you know and respect because you are throwing out e-mails with "Sale" in the body.

  3. When adding a new term to your filtering, choose to journal it, and let it through rather than stopping it dead in its tracks. It will give you a chance to evaluate how your filtering terms are working before you just throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  4. Don't always wait for an e-mail. Use the phone! Sure, I know it goes against the grain of many of we e-mail professionals, but it's nice to hear a human voice once in a while.

    But, please, don't growl when you talk to me.


This is very funny! The same thing happened to me, except I was trying to stop anything "anal" heading my way and I ended up dropping e-mails from a few "Systems Analysts" in the process. That aspect of the systems analyst job never occurred to me.

—Bodek F.


A simple solution to the problem with spam filters reacting on a blocked word when it's part of a longer word is to always put a <space> at the beginning of the words you want to block. That way the filter won't react when the blocked word is part of a longer word. It will miss if the blocked word stands without a space in front of it, like when it's the first word in the subject -- but you will avoid false hits.

—Jan B.


I believe that Lotus should add the option of "all words containing and whole word" within the filtering. This would prevent some of your problems.

—Frank G.

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